Matt Tardiff, solo developer at Little Blackbird Studio, is your atypical indie developer, with a twist. Matt is responsible for the concept, hand-drawn art, level design, 2D animation – and just about everything else (bar the programming in Corgi Engine) in the gorgeous Steam Early Access adventure: A Crooked Heart.
The origins of A Crooked Heart stem from Matt’s eldest pet Pembroke Corgi, Lulu, who injured her ACLs when she was just a year old. Matt jokingly began sketching Lulu’s adventures as a cyborg heroine using traditional animation, playing out stories on paper first, then later as an epiphanic game concept.
Credit: Matt Tardiff, Little Blackbird Studios “Me and the girls”
Matt drew on his experience as a CG animator to eventually bring these adventures to life and fleshed out a story that would involve a post-apocalyptic landscape, a deadly virus, and her rescue of her true love – Orion.
“A Crooked Heart is a traditionally animated, side scrolling adventure about Lulu and Orion, the last of the Corgis, fighting to protect their world from Seavus. At its core, A Crooked Heart is a love story about loss, sacrifice and what it means to live despite death. Life will always find a way to prevail in the face of adversity.” – Matt Tardiff, Little Blackbird Studio
Creating digital art and animation on a PC is no easy task if you don’t have the right hardware and software, so we were curious about how Matt got started, and managed to juggle the million solo indie developer tasks which resulted in launching A Crooked Heart Early Access on Steam.
When you started out with digital art, did you begin with game art - or did this come later?
Matt: This came much later. I started out using an early version of the Wacom tablet using Corel Painter on an old Toshiba Satellite. The process was painful as I had to get used to not drawing on paper like I had done since I was a kid. I only got into game art once I decided to create A Crooked Heart. It combined my passion for traditional animation and platformers with a story.
Credit: Matt Tardiff, Little Blackbird Studio (A Crooked heart)
Hand Drawn Art and Animation With Cintiq and Photoshop
Did you ever have any plans to use traditional hand drawn art and a high quality scanner (like some game artists prefer)
Matt: I used that method a couple of times. By the time I was able to afford a Cintiq and learned how to use brushes in Photoshop to create the same feel, I stopped spending money on the materials. Plus, I would waste so much paper correcting errors. Undo became a lifeline to support that need.
Pictured: Wacom Cintiq Pro 24 Creative Pen Display
What is your current setup now?
Matt: My computer is pretty sad at the moment but it gets the job done. I'm using a Desktop HP Tower and a Cintiq Pro 24.
As far as art, I use Photoshop for all the pencil sketch looking backgrounds and TVPaint for the animation. TVPaint is the closest you can get to real paper and process.
Matt’s Game Artist/Animation Specs, Hardware & Software:
- HP Desktop
- Intel Core i7-3770 CPU @ 3.40Ghz
- 16GB RAM
- 64-Bit Windows 10
- Cintiq Pro 24
- Unity (Corgi Engine)
Photoshop's great for the game illustration part because it's simple and easy to understand in my opinion.
Level Design and Game Artist Workflow
What does your level design workflow look like?
Matt: My workflow for a background is as follows. Establish the purpose of a room then gather as much reference from my library and online as I have the attention span for. I'll cut up parts of these images to form a collage of where I want to go. After that I merge the layers, make it black and white, reduce the opacity and start to sketch out the plane that will ultimately turn into the final. As far as animation, I rely heavily on reference, with the exception of the FX. Most of FX come from experimentation and hoping for the best.
Where did you get inspiration for level design?
Matt: Since I established early on that I want the backgrounds to be more realistic in contrast to the characters, I had to decide on when the story took place. To illustrate the dark history of A Crooked Heart, I felt that a combo of post-World War 2 and 80's tech help support the narrative. I wanted to show that humans used to live here, but only by the design of the environment. My focus is more on why there are only 2 Corgis left as well as a handful of helpful little creatures called Arothians. I'm not including all of the enemies since it's to be assumed that their existence is the by-product of the Seavus virus.
How long does a typical level take you to create?
Matt: A typical background used to take me anywhere between two weeks to a month. But my workflow as gradually increased in speed. Which is great because as of today, I have sixty levels to finish by August 2022.
With the amount of blood, sweat and tears that have gone into the Early Access and subsequent updates for A Crooked Heart, what do you consider as your best advice to aspiring game artists and animators?
Matt: That's funny you mention blood because that automatically reminded me of how the original direction of the story started out. It was going to be a violent, Tarrantino-esque version of the same foundation it is now. But a friend, who doesn't play games said that, if she did, she would never play A Crooked Heart because of all the guns and the fact that our heroin was being shot by them. That epiphany changed the whole scope of how I decided to tell the story, visually.
I got rid of all the humans and focused on the aftermath of their disappearance. I decided that there wasn't going to be any blood or guns. When a creature dies, the virus is the blood. The reason I bring this up as a foundation for advice, is to be able to let go and listen to someone else's idea. I mean, you have to trust this person. Along the same line, unless you really have to, avoid getting feedback from random people on the internet. Being too open to feedback from strangers can muddy your idea and passion to the point that you may quit. You're creating something for you first.
One of the biggest mistakes I made when starting A Crooked Heart was not getting into the engine sooner. When I began this project, I only knew a little bit about UE4 and nothing about Unity. I focused more on the art and story and less about how it would respond in the engine.
A great example would be the jump. If the player response isn't met, the jump will break a game. When the player presses the jump button, they are already anticipating the action; so we don't need to animate that. But I didn't realize this at the time so I had this elaborate animation for the jump on the ground and from wall to wall. But when I got it into the engine my immediate reaction was, "You've got to be kidding me; this sucks."
So, I had to go back and cut out a bunch of the animations I created because I was paying to much attention on what I wanted to do and did not consider how it would affect the player.
Animation & Gameplay Using Unity and Corgi Engine
How difficult was it to find a developer who was both passionate about the project long term and also had the required ability?
I was able to get really far using the Corgi Engine - no connection - in Unity. It's pretty much a drag and drop sort of template to help artists build a game without a programmer. But there are a ton of limitations that only a programmer can help with. So, it's a perfect, if not the best type of engine to get you off to a great start. But I ended up needing mechanics that I couldn't get out of the box. Or at least I didn't understand how to use some of the base scripts that were available.
I went through a couple of programmers that were able to get some functionality on small stuff like game saves. But when I recently hired a programmer, Christopher Wilson, everything started falling into place. I mean, I cannot talk this guy up enough. He hit the ground running and knocked out some major issues in a day. He has since created some of the mechanics that I've been wanting and others I didn't know I needed. He works hard and is always available, like me, so it makes for a great working relationship. We're on our second contract with a third to follow.
Have your Early Access users helped you develop the game beyond its original scope?
Yes, very much. The biggest online help came from the Twitch streamers. Watching them play your game, break it, wonder why it didn't have this feature and so on, was so valuable. Every streamer had something to offer that I was able to implement.
You have to take it with a grain of salt at the same time because while you are trying to make a game that people will want to play, you're also making it for yourself first.
Play A Crooked Heart
A Crooked Heart is still available on Steam Early Access priced at £1.69.